This was an entry on the Regional Food blog, 16 March 2008

One day, deep in the Oberon pine forests…
I found some mushrooms.

I do have an interest or two outside of food and wine, (the pleasure of living in the country is part of that) but usually they combine with eating. This is my confession of being a closet mycophile. I really really like mushrooms, the wonderful shapes, colours and sizes that they grow in. My photo archives are littered with them like fungi on a pine forest floor. I love the mythology and traditions (did you know that Buddha died from eating a poisonous mushroom?).

Eating them was a pleasure I discovered latter-day. As a kid, I’d pick them for my parents. The idea that this abundance was seasonally available and free, and the surprise in seeing them appear where days before there were none is still magical. (And I like the smell of them. However growing a mushroom kit in the cupboard under the stairs taught me that not everyone in the family liked that fecund mustiness. Especially infiltrating their hanging jackets.)

In my hand at left are the two varieties that are commonly available in autumn in the forests around Oberon in NSW (and much wider, but usually associated with pine forests) . The Oberon Visitors Centre has a free identification sheet and display samples at this time of the year, that will help you make sure that you’re not eating things poisonous. If in doubt, throw it out.

The extensive pine plantations in the area were planted with seedlings from Europe and came complete with spores of these varieties. Apparently you’ll find family groups of European residents gambolling in the woods at this time of the year. I picked enough for a substantial meal that we cooked in a pan with butter and served over polenta. Tasty. At rear is actually a boletus, with a sponge-like cap, and brown slimy skin called a Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus). In front is the Saffron Milk Cap (Lactarius deliciosus) If you cut the stems with a knife, they can then re-grow (that is good mushrooming manners that I learnt too late for these.)

But it’s the beauty and danger of the poisonous Fly Agaric that attracts me. It’s a popular image. As Wikipedia points out the image of the red and white mushroom appears in lots of countries (and if you’ve played or watched your kid’s computer play, it’s a character in Nintendo’s Mario series) . As you see from the old postcard above (which it came from a voodoo site, well worth a look ), along with the four leaf clovers, leprechauns and horseshoes it was considered lucky. I have a few tiny red and white mushroom Christmas tree decorations and there’s suggestions that the mushroom’s colours became associated with St. Nicholas, and then Santa.

The psychoactive capabilities and the folklore are all explained in the Wikipedia article. After a hippie era testing of ‘magic’ psylocibe mushrooms when I was violently ill, (trippy but ill), so I’ll pass on testing the fly agaric’s hallucinogenic qualities.

Can I pour you a glass of wine perhaps?

In the Foreword to Robert Graves The Greek Myths he says, (it’s interesting enough, at least to me, to include here at length) …

SINCE revising The Greek Myths in 1958, I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanour, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy ale. The evidence, summarized in my What Food the Centaurs Ate (1958), suggests that Satyrs (goat-totem tribesmen), Centaurs (horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength.

Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia; a phenomenon that would account for the story of how Lycurgus, armed only with an ox-goad, routed Dionysus’s drunken army of Maenads and Satyrs after its victorious return from India.

On an Etruscan mirror the amanita muscaria is engraved at Ixion’s feet; he was a
Thessalian hero who feasted on ambrosia among the gods. Several myths are consistent with my theory that his descendants, the Centaurs, ate this mushroom; and, according to some historians, it was later employed by the Norse berserks to give them reckless power in battle. I now believe that ‘ambrosia’ and ‘nectar’ were intoxicant mushrooms: certainly the amanita muscaria; but perhaps others, too, especially a small, slender dung-mushroom named panaeolus papilionaceus, which induces harmless and most enjoyable hallucinations. A mushroom not unlike it appears on an Attic vase between the hooves of Nessus the Centaur.
The ‘gods’ for whom, in the myths, ambrosia and nectar were reserved, will have been sacred queens and kings of the pre-Classical era. King Tantalus’s crime was that he broke the taboo
by inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.

Sacred queenships and kingships lapsed in Greece; ambrosia then became, it seems, the secret element of the Eleusinian, Orphic and other Mysteries associated with Dionysus. At all events, the participants swore to keep silence about what they ate or drank, saw unforgettable visions, and were promised immortality. The ‘ambrosia’ awarded to winners of the Olympic footrace when victory no longer conferred the sacred kingship on them was clearly a substitute: a mixture of foods the initial letters of which, as I show in What Food the Centaurs Ate, spelled out the Greek word ‘mushroom’. Recipes quoted by Classical authors for nectar, and for cecyon, the mint-flavoured drink taken by Demeter at Eleusis, likewise spell out ‘mushroom’.

I have myself eaten the hallucinogenic mushroom, psilocybe, a divine ambrosia in
immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries. Tlaloc was engendered by lightning; so was Dionysus; and in Greek folklore, as in Masatec, so are all mushrooms—proverbially called ‘food of the gods’ in both languages. Tlaloc wore a serpent crown; so did Dionysus. Tlaloc had an underwater retreat; so had Dionysus. The Maenads’ savage custom of tearing off their victims’ heads may refer allegorically to tearing off the sacred mushroom’s head—since in Mexico its stalk is never eaten. We read that Perseus, a sacred King of Argos, converted to Dionysus worship, named Mycenae after a toadstool which he found growing on the site, and which gave forth a stream of water. Tlaloc’s emblem was a toad; so was that of Argos; and from the mouth of Tlaloc’s toad in the Tepentitla fresco issues a stream of water. Yet at what epoch were the European and Central American cultures in contact?

These theories call for further research, and I have therefore not incorporated my findings in the text of the present edition. Any expert help in solving the problem would be greatly appreciated.
Deyá, Majorca,
Spain, 1960.